Farm futures: private equity goes organic

Farm futures: private equity goes organic

0513 FarmFutures 02 
After 4 years of searching, Neal (left) and Karen Wells (center) found a home at Jason Bradford's (right) Corvallis-based Farmland LP location.
// Photo by Eric Näslund

Bradford and Wichner met in 2008 at a peak oil and gas conference, and quickly realized they had similar beliefs about the economy’s debilitating dependence on raw materials, whose price is rising as their scarcity increases.

“I was a small organic vegetable farmer frustrated by lack of access to capital, lack of access to land and lack of the ability to mix and integrate farming practices I thought were important,” 43-year-old Bradford explains. “I needed someone to help me buy a big farm so that I could put all my ideas together.”

At the same time, financial analyst Wichner was a new father searching for ways to truly create a sustainable future. When Bradford explained his goal of trying old-time, small farming methods on a larger piece of land, Wichner grasped the way rotational pasture-based farming might be a growth opportunity. Wichner could also see that the two partners needed to think beyond a single farm.

“Craig looked at the idea and said, ‘You don’t make a one-off, where you are the one precious example. You make it a model and you make it replicable.’”

Farmland’s model is to take time to convert conventional land to certified-organic, pasture-based production in order to get organic’s price premium, and they are counting on tenant farmers — whether sheep, chicken or veggie farmers, or producers of wheat, alfalfa or hay — to be able to pay a percentage of their profit to lease Farmland land.

Farmland’s is also a model where tenant farmers are specialized in their area of production but are long-term renters who will be moved around as the rotational model requires. These farmers, Farmland hopes, will do well because they get the benefit of pastured land where soil fertility is increasing year after year, and where input costs — for fertilizer and chemicals — will be lower. What Farmland farmers won’t have is the crushing overhead of a too-high mortgage, or the problem of trying to access expansion money in today’s hard-to-borrow financial environment.

“If you are a young farmer and want to diversify on 40 or 60 acres,” Bradford says, “the overhead cost on each unit of production ends up being very high. You can only have so many sheep, the cost of equipment for managing those sheep is high, and your intellectual capital — well, how good can you be in sheep while also trying to do chickens, veggies, grains?”

Bradford says this is the reason, along with difficult financing, that the idealized model of diversified and sustainable farms hasn’t spread in the United States.